Parade of Flags sparks tension in Jerusalem

The controversial march has ended with numerous arrests and injuries. Israeli government condemns racist insults against Palestinians while Hamas warns it will respond at the "appropriate time"

PHOTO/AP  -   Ultranacionalistas judíos ondean banderas israelíes durante la "Marcha de las Banderas", junto a la puerta de Damasco, en las afueras de la Ciudad Vieja de Jerusalén

As every year, thousands of Israelis - mostly religious and ultra-nationalists - have held the controversial Parade of Flags in Jerusalem to commemorate the conquest of the eastern part of the city in 1967 after the Six-Day War. The controversial march, considered a "provocation" by Palestinians, came to a head around Damascus Gate and in the narrow streets of the Muslim Quarter. 

Inside the Old City, tensions between Israeli ultra-nationalists and Palestinians erupted over racist chants such as "Death to the Arabs" and "Your villages will burn", as well as slogans against the Prophet Mohammed. Also during this year's march, ultra-nationalists mocked and insulted Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed while covering an Israeli raid in the West Bank. Indeed, Palestinian journalists reporting on the event have been subjected to insults from Israeli protesters.

"Do we own this? If so, let's get rid of them," one participant in the march told The Times of Israel, referring to Arabs and Palestinians. "This is our country. Palestinians are guests on our land," another told AFP. 

AP/ARIEL SCHALIT  -   La policía israelí ha reforzado su presencia en Jerusalén en vísperas de la marcha de la bandera, una manifestación ultranacionalista que conmemora el “Día de Jerusalén”
AP/ARIEL SCHALIT - Tensions between Israeli ultra-nationalists and Palestinians erupted over racist chanting.

Due to the violence and tension typical of the day, Palestinians living in the Old City opted to close their businesses and some avoided going out on the streets. "You never know what they might do, maybe they might attack the shop, so we close earlier," one Palestinian told El Mundo.

To deal with the day's disturbances, Israeli police raised the alert to the highest level and deployed 3,000 officers in Jerusalem. Security forces also prepared for various scenarios, such as rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, terrorist attacks in Israel and clashes in mixed cities. 

According to police reports, 18 Palestinians were arrested on suspicion of rioting and assaulting officers for throwing stones during the arrival of Israeli protesters at the Esplanade of the Mosques or Temple Mount, the holiest site for Jews and the third holiest site in Islam after Mecca and Medina. "Every year they come here and provoke us. But this year it is worse, we feel it as a challenge," a Palestinian revealed to the Israeli newspaper.

Due to the status quo, Jews are allowed to visit the Temple Mount, but not to pray on it. However, many of them do not respect the rules and even visit the site with the Israeli flag despite threats from Hamas, which has warned that flying the Israeli flag at the holy site could trigger a "violent response". As reported by police, some 1,800 people - including tourists - entered the area during regular visits on Sunday. Among them, some Jews "violated the rules of the visit" and several were arrested, AFP reports.

Among the nationalists who entered the Esplanade of the Mosques was far-right MP Itamar Ben Gvir, who tweeted that they would not give in to threats from terrorist groups, as they are "the owners of Jerusalem". 

In addition to the dozens detained on the Temple Mount, police arrested more than 60 people suspected of disturbing public order. Moreover, according to Palestinian Red Crescent figures gathered by AFP, at least 79 people were injured, including 23 who needed hospital care.

Some of them were beaten by the security forces, while others were attacked by the demonstrators themselves. For example, an ultra-orthodox man spat on and pepper-sprayed an elderly Palestinian woman. On the other hand, nationalists threw bottles at medics transporting an injured citizen, as reported by the news agency.

Lapid: radical groups "are not worthy to carry the Israeli flag"

The Israeli government has condemned these actions, as well as insults against Palestinians and racist chants. Foreign Minister Yair Lapid called the nationalist groups "a disgrace" and said they "are not worthy of holding the Israeli flag". Among the best-known radical anti-Arab organisations are La Familia, made up of supporters of the Beitar Jerusalem football team, and Lahava.

PHOTO/REUTERS - Jóvenes ondean banderas israelíes durante un desfile que marca el Día de Jerusalén en medio de la tensión entre israelíes y palestinos mientras marchan a lo largo de las murallas que rodean la Ciudad Vieja de Jerusalén
PHOTO/REUTERS - Among the most vocal and radical anti-Arab organisations are La Familia, made up of supporters of the Beitar Jerusalem football team, and Lahava

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett also ordered the police to show "zero tolerance" against any racist behaviour, singling out The Family group. According to the Israeli leader, "a minority came to set fire to the area, taking advantage of the government's strong position against Hamas threats, trying to cause a fire".

PHOTO/AP - Bennett called for "responsibility and respect" during the Parade of Flags

Bennett had previously approved and endorsed the holding of the march, saying that "raising the Israeli flag in the capital of Israel is self-evident". However, the prime minister called for "responsibility and respect". Defence Minister Benny Gantz expressed a similar view. "We will hold any kind of march we want in our capital," he stressed, addressing Hamas, a group that, according to Gantz, "will not threaten our sovereignty".

Echoes of the 2021 war 

The controversial development comes a year after the 11-day escalation of the Hamas-Gaza Islamic Jihad war against the Israeli army. "Last year, Hamas decided to launch rockets, and still regrets that Operation Wall Guardian happened," Gantz said, referring to attacks against armed factions in Gaza. 

PHOTO/REUTERS - Militantes palestinos de Hamas en el sur de la Franja de Gaza
PHOTO/REUTERS - Palestinian Hamas militants in the southern Gaza Strip.

The 2021 war was triggered after a similar situation: nationalist Israelis waving flags at the Esplanade of the Mosques and clashes with Palestinians. In addition, this year's Parade of Flags took place at a time of high tension in Israel after a wave of terrorist attacks that claimed the lives of 9 Israelis and multiple raids in the West Bank. Meanwhile, clashes continue in the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Sheikh Jarrah, another hotspot during the escalation of May 2021.

Following Sunday's march in the Old City, tensions shifted to the neighbourhood, where fights broke out between Israelis and Palestinians. "They broke cars, threw stones at houses and tried to beat people. They pepper-sprayed people," a Palestinian resident told The Times of Israel. "This is the first time I've seen this kind of violence. The police did nothing. There were also Arabs, but they were trying to defend themselves," he added. 

Despite the turbulent and violent context, analyst and former Israeli intelligence officer Shlomo Mofaz tells AFP that Bennett believes "Hamas has no interest in another war and is now focused on rebuilding Gaza". However, if tensions rise in Jerusalem, "this could prompt Hamas or other armed Palestinian groups, such as Islamic Jihad, to change their minds," he adds. 

AFP/ MAHMUD HAMS  -   Los palestinos evalúan los daños causados por los ataques aéreos israelíes, en Beit Hanun, en el norte de la Franja de Gaza, el 14 de mayo de 2021
AFP/ MAHMUD HAMS - Palestinians assess the damage caused by Israeli airstrikes, in Beit Hanoun, northern Gaza Strip, 14 May 2021

On Sunday night, coinciding with the end of the Parade of Flags, Hamas said it could still respond to the march, saying it would do so "at the appropriate time". The Palestinian group's spokesman, Mohammad Hamada, told Al Jazeera that a "violent response was still possible". "The resistance will decide how and when to respond according to the information it has and at the right time," he said. 

​  AP/ADEL HANA - Militantes de las Brigadas Izzedine al-Qassam, ala militar de Hamás, sostienen sus banderas de Palestina  ​
​AP/ADEL HANA - Members of the Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of Hamas.

Due to fears of violence and clashes, even Joe Biden's administration tried to pressure the Israeli government days earlier to alter the route of the march, an Israeli official told The Times of Israel.

Flowers instead of hatred 

Despite radicalism and hatred, there is also room for tolerance and understanding in Jerusalem. During the Parade of Flags, dozens of Israeli activists held a parallel march aimed at reconciliation with Palestinians. To this end, the Tag Meir group handed out flowers to Arab citizens in the Old City.

"Our goal is to show the Arabs in Jerusalem that there are also Jews who do not want to provoke them and be in conflict," Mijam Ross, an activist with the organisation, told El Mundo. Uri Werner-Reiss, another participant in the march, told the Israeli website Ynet that he is doing it to counter the "damage caused to Arabs by intimidation and incitement". The conflict, however, he acknowledges, "is not going to be solved by handing out flowers", although this small gesture shows that there is "a public that wants to live together, as neighbours and without hostility".

On the other hand, Peta Jones Pellach, an activist who also hands out flowers on this day, denounces in an article in The Times of Israel the idea that many citizens share about owning and controlling Jerusalem. "They don't love it (the city) for its holiness and uniqueness. They love the idea of dominating it, the idea of control". So Pellach's message on this day is simple: share this wonderful city with all the people who love it. "Love it enough not to want to control it," he concludes.